MAY ’68

the student revolt at Columbia University

Demonstrators protesting the Vietnam War, with police officers lining the steps of Low Library, Columbia University, New York, April 27, 1968. Photo: Associated Press.

I OFTEN THOUGHT, in the years that followed the great student uprising at Columbia in late April 1968, of the singular political inventiveness that shaped the event. It defined the form student uprisings were to take on campuses all across the country, almost as if a script had been pasted together in the heat of social action that was reenacted, year after year, as a kind of political drama, adaptable to local circumstance but essentially the same. The occupation of university buildings, the list of nonnegotiable demands, the Ad Hoc Faculty Group, the Radical Caucus, the armbands and slogans—these became a kind of general-purpose protest kit. Living through it for the first time was another matter. It taught me what it was like to live in history, which consists in the sense that something momentous is taking place, without anyone’s knowing how it is going to come out. The protest was an exercise in performative improvisation.

My own feelings that spring were deeply engaged from the beginning. I and my peers on the Columbia faculty felt it our role to mediate between the student protesters and the administration. I had no particular love for the central administration of the university. It was cold, distant, and unresponsive, especially in the person of its then-president, Grayson Kirk. But I believed that as a great university, Columbia exemplified the values with which I identified as a scholar and teacher—free inquiry, respect for knowledge and truth, intellectual openness, and, because of Columbia’s situation in New York, a certain cosmopolitan spirit. American universities had recently survived attacks from the Right, preeminently from McCarthyism. The Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in 1964 was, in part, a response to that bit of history. Now there was an attack from the Left, different, to be sure, but no less hostile to the defining values most of us took for granted. Obviously, my university was not the university of the protesters, who saw it as complicit in racism and in the conduct of an unpopular war—a war that, of course, many on the faculty opposed, myself included. On the other hand, they were our students, and there were powerful bonds between us. But passions ruled the day, and there was little opportunity for rational debate, though in truth, the protesters, for all the vehemence of their rhetoric, were largely nonviolent. They were confrontational but—with several egregious exceptions, including holding a dean hostage for twenty-six hours—not physically coercive.

Even after the initial occupation of a classroom building on April 23, there was no real violence to speak of until, early in the morning of April 30, police brutalized the protesters as well as those on the faculty who interposed themselves in an effort to shield the students. By the end of the bust at least 150 people had suffered injuries. But as the drama was unfolding, there was no way of knowing when or whether violence would erupt, if not from the protesters, then from outside forces. In later years, the Weather Underground—which counted several of these Columbia students among its number—would become more or less terrorist in its means. But in the week of the uprising there seemed a singular restraint on all sides. That is why President Kirk was condemned for breaking the spell and calling in the police. In truth, he would have done it earlier, but he was apprehensive of bringing in constituencies he could not control. When these fears faded, he yielded to trustee pressure, and the event was over, leaving a residue of bitterness and resentment in its wake—and, of course, the myths that history always leaves.

The uprising took everyone by surprise. The driving force was a kind of creative impulsiveness. On Tuesday, April 23, the day it all began, I was one of a group of faculty invited to have lunch with some prospective students that the admissions committee was anxious to recruit. A sort of omnibus demonstration had been announced—principally in opposition to disciplinary action against student leaders, defense contracting at the university, and the building of a new Columbia gym in Harlem. But in those days, at Columbia certainly, demonstrations were commonplace. I do remember an unusual number of leaflets up and down the staircases in Hamilton Hall, Columbia College’s main classroom building, where I had my office. Later that day, a large group of frustrated students, after a failed effort to invade the construction site of the contested gymnasium, returned to campus and occupied Hamilton’s lobby. As if they wanted to turn this into an educational opportunity, one of the occupiers phoned me at home, asking me to come talk to them. They had also asked George R. Collins, an art historian, who had done research on Frederick Law Olmsted, the great designer of New York’s park system, including Morningside Park, which was built into a rise between the Columbia campus and Harlem. It was there that the university was erecting its new gymnasium intended to serve both Columbia students and Harlem youths. The gym was a classic example of an idea that had seemed good at one moment but bad at another. Columbia people were to enter at campus level, Harlem people at the lower level. Because of the gym, the celebrated urbanist Jane Jacobs had singled Columbia out, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), as one of the few institutions that showed itself to be sensitive to the needs of the community. But in 1968, the two-tiered architecture seemed an intolerable symbol of segregation to everyone who thought about it.

By the time I got to Hamilton, the students had taken a hostage—Henry S. (“Harry”) Coleman, a former athlete, now acting dean of the college. It was a pretty wild scene. I climbed to the lobby’s upper level and explained that I would talk about anything the students wished, but only if they released Dean Coleman. Someone said that he could leave anytime he wanted. I went into Harry’s office and asked him if he wanted to leave, and he said he did. When I communicated this to the students, some said that he was free to go, but one of them said that they were free to kick the shit out of him if they wanted. At that point, I tried to make a moral case against holding a person prisoner in this way. Somebody called out, “Should we take out our notebooks?” and I was howled down. As I left the building, I was told by several students that I didn’t understand what was happening, that this was the revolution! Well, revolution was much in the air. How was I to know? How was anyone?

Early the next morning, the phone rang. Someone said, with great urgency, that I had to get over to campus immediately, that the black students had taken over Hamilton Hall. I asked what he thought I could do, and he answered: “Negotiate!” It was still pretty dark, and I remember seeing Mark Rudd, the leader of the Columbia chapter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), loping across the campus. He was heading toward Low Library—the university administration building, home to the president’s office—which I was shortly to find had been occupied by the white students who had been thrown out of Hamilton. “Are the blacks still in Hamilton?” I asked. Rudd answered, “I wish I were in there with them!” From that point on, the event becomes a blur to me. I remember a meeting at Lionel Trilling’s apartment, the gist of which was, What could we do to save the university? That was the first meeting of what came to be the Ad Hoc Faculty Group, which met throughout the crisis in the Graduate Students’ Lounge in Philosophy Hall. Living in history has, in retrospect, something of the form of a partially restored mural, in which irregular islands of painted incident are all that remain, set into a wall of blank white plaster. There is no better example of what I mean than Fabrizio’s disconnected battlefield experiences, in Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma, in what he afterward learns was the Battle of Waterloo.

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What I did learn from the meetings of the Ad Hoc Faculty Group was how such groups move in increasingly radical directions. It was like it must have been in the French Revolution. Initially, you have moderates making impassioned but rational speeches to one another. But then the Jacobins move in and discourse takes a more and more vehement tone. At Columbia in 1968, at least, this phenomenon was the consequence of external uncertainties. First there was the critical question of what Harlem was going to do, now that the SAS—the Society of Afro-American Students—was in possession of Hamilton Hall. It has to be remembered that there had been no full-fledged rioting in Harlem after Martin Luther King’s assassination earlier that month. Mayor John Lindsay had gone uptown after King’s death and managed, with the help of black politicians, to keep the peace there, when ghettos all over America were exploding in anger and frustration. Looking up from Harlem, Columbia’s buildings on Morningside Heights must have seemed like the embodiment of white power. Dire rumors swept the campus. Friday was payday in Harlem! Alienated blacks were going to swarm up through Morningside Park to join their brothers in Hamilton Hall! The university was going to go up in flames! Not a building would be left standing!

By that time I was more or less living on campus, sleeping on the floor, when I was not participating in one or another meeting devoted to the issue of negotiation. For a while I worked as faculty spokesman on WKCR, the university’s radio station, about the status of things. I found out about the actual state of negotiations from Paul Starr, a reporter for the Columbia Spectator, the student newspaper, who has since become a prominent sociologist. I had the sense that the negotiations were getting nowhere. The students saw themselves as living the life of guerrillas in Oriente Province in Cuba. They now occupied five buildings and could have occupied others. The administration had no intention of meeting their demands.

Friday night came. At some point there was a huge ruckus outside. I ran out of Philosophy Hall with a fellow veteran, the medievalist James Walsh. A great crowd had gathered along College Walk, where a flat-bed truck was parked. There was Charles 37X Kenyatta, formerly Malcolm X’s bodyguard, dressed in an African garment. He was with a group of followers, playing music. He was beaming. He had clearly come with benign intentions. It was like a dream. In the end, Harlem did not take a lot of interest in events on the Heights. When it came to racism, everyone who feared Harlem had some dose of it. The fear that the university would be blown up vanished with the dawn.

One day I left the campus to see a friend’s show at a gallery on the East Side. As I was about to cross Broadway, I was stunned to see that people were going about their normal business. The students were wrong. This wasn’t the revolution. There was no revolution. That was confirmed on Saturday, April 27. An immense antiwar demonstration had been scheduled to take place in Central Park. Surely, it was felt, the demonstrators would end the meeting by marching up to Columbia, to celebrate with the protesters. As with Harlem, nothing happened. People were no doubt interested, and without question outsiders had come to be part of the Columbia protest. But for the most part the uprising was restricted to the campus itself. It was less and less “the revolution” the students believed and hoped it was. Told that the police would be coming at any time now, I thought I had heard enough rumors. So I missed the bust, in which so many of the seven hundred students who were carted away to the courts downtown—together with many of their supporters—became genuinely radicalized. The following morning, walking onto the campus, there was a terrible feeling that one’s country had been invaded. There were police everywhere, and the debris of battle. The president, who had ordered the police to clear the buildings, had disgraced himself. He did not preside at commencement. For the first time in memory, someone other than the university’s president gave the commencement address. The graduation ceremonies took place in the nearby Cathedral of Saint John the Divine rather than on the campus, where they were traditionally held. Many graduates walked out, to join a “countercommencement” on campus. Soon after, President Kirk resigned.

I have a kind of theory that when great social changes are about to take place, something happens in the arts first—think of Romanticism and the French Revolution, or of the Russian avant-garde in the years 1905 to 1915 and of Aleksandr Rodchenko’s slogan “Art into life!” That was close to the motto of Fluxus, led by students in John Cage’s seminar in experimental composition at the New School in New York. Cage himself was an auditor in D. T. Suzuki’s seminar on Zen Buddhism at Columbia. Marcel Duchamp had become an intellectual force through Cage and through the publication of Robert Lebel’s study of Duchamp’s thought and practice. The students at Columbia in April 1968 believed in some version of the SDS idea that they should participate in the decisions that affected their lives, hence in breaking down the barriers that confined them to what Kant, in his essay “What Is Enlightenment?” called their “nonage.”

Columbia students as a whole back then had little interest in advanced art as such. I remember them booing even the Velvet Underground when the band visited campus, along with a showing of Andy Warhol’s Blow Job. But the spirit of overcoming boundaries was now part of the culture—and in a sense the protest was a work of artistic imagination. I thought the event extraordinary, as the fact that it was so widely imitated proved. I was really proud of what my university had produced. One day, after the events of April, as I was walking with my colleague the logician Charles Parsons, he said, “For me, the question was never who was to the right and who was to the left, but who was here and who stayed home.” Academic men and women can be obsessed with their text of Pindar, their Uzbek grammar, their monograph on reduction sentences, their history of microscopy. Still, it is the university that guarantees the security they need to undertake these pursuits. Knowledge has to be defended the way the society we want has to be. The faculty in 1968 had to defend the university, and to defend its students. Some boundaries have to be respected. And this point is very much of the moment, as we Americans have been living some seven years under a conservative administration that has tried to erase moral boundaries that once defined us as a nation.

In the aftermath of ’68, students at Columbia (and elsewhere) did begin to participate in decision making. They served on committees and in the newly formed university senate. The Morningside Park gym was abandoned (a different one, within campus boundaries, was built instead) and the university disaffiliated with the Institute for Defense Analyses, effectively ending defense-related research at Columbia. But it is difficult to believe that this was what believing in “the revolution” amounted to. The protest was probably, at heart, a deflected effort to stop the war in Vietnam, but there was more to it than that, since student protest became a world phenomenon. There was a shared vision of a freer society, more just and more fulfilling. Shortly after commencement, I flew to Paris with my family, right in time to experience les événements de mai. I had a free tutorial that spring and summer in student uprisings, which were sweeping the globe. But the deep changes took place in America, where boundary after boundary dissolved. The summer of 1964 had been the Summer of Freedom, when brave white men and women went south to help brave black men and women claim their civil rights. One major cultural change that came from the Columbia uprising was the emergence of radical feminism. The Columbia protesters were by no means feminists. Female protesters in the buildings were treated like subordinates by the males, reflecting the pattern of the times. Ti-Grace Atkinson, a graduate student in philosophy, but also president of the New York chapter of NOW—and a defender of Valerie Solanas, Warhol’s assailant!—began to define a new and more aggressive feminist agenda, just as Black Power had emerged among the blacks. The spirit of liberation was irresistible. With the Stonewall riots in 1969, the oppression of gays was confronted and began to give way. And, of course, resistance to the war in Vietnam ultimately prevailed. A famous graffito in Paris expressed the true spirit of that decade: l’imagination au pouvoir. Aesthetics, for once, changed the way we all lived. Gradually, afterward, I think we all started to see life in new ways. At least I did.

Arthur C. Danto is a contributing editor of Artforum.